Thursday, September 30, 2010

Arctic Dreams

Years ago, I read Barry Lopez's book Arctic Dreams, and that began a fascination with the arctic that still persists. It hasn't helped to hear all of the incredible stories from returning fishermen, and to see that look in their eyes as they describe a trip of a lifetime. I hope (know) that someday I will make the journey north, but for now I must be content with the small bits of the arctic I can find here in Montana.

Montana does offer a unique arctic-like angling experience that can be found nowhere else in the lower 48 states. We are home to a native and wild population of fluvial Arctic Grayling. This beautiful salmonid graces some of our rivers and streams, but is unfortunately struggling to survive. The fish should be protected under the ESA, but the USFWS recently released its decision saying that listing is "warranted but precluded." Seems like I've heard that one before. For more information about this check out BHWC Grayling Report. The stronghold for this species in the state is without a doubt the Big Hole River, but it can also be found in the upper Ruby River and it has been stocked into some mountain lakes.

I had caught grayling out of mountain lakes before, but I truly desired to pursue the native fluvial strain in their original range. My frequent fishing companion, Will (111 Degrees West) also had similar ambitions so we set out on a journey to a high mountain valley drainage that still contains native fish. Since my experience with grayling up to this point was only in lakes, I was prepared to cast dry flies and expected near suicidal responses from the fish. As I worked up the stream, however, nothing would rise or flash and you could have almost convinced yourself that there were no fish around. I can honestly say that it was very different than fishing for them in a lake. These wild fish were wary and held tight to in-stream structure. They were not interested in a dry fly, and you had to put a nymph enticingly close to get them to swirl out in a brilliant flash of silver and blue. We slowly began to figure out the nuances of the fishery, and pretty soon we were catching fish out of every hole. Most of the fish were about 12" or so, but I did manage one larger fish of 16" with a striking split dorsal fin. By far my best grayling ever and I was lucky to have the professional camera lens of Will nearby to get some great images of this piece of my arctic dream.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Free Flowing

The Yellowstone River has been a huge part of Montana's history, and still is today. On any given day, you will find people out recreating all along the hundreds of miles of river. From Gardiner down through Yankee Jim Canyon, you can find many enjoying a day of whitewater thrills. From there all the way down to Big Timber, you will primarily see drift boats and rafts full of guides and fisherman. Further downstream, you will begin to see jetboats plying the river maybe looking for a large Smallmouth Bass or a huge Channel Catfish. There are also countless oppurtunites for overnight camping. Many of the fishing access sites offer more developed campsites, while there is camping allowed on the countless islands and below the high water mark. The Yellowstone River, at 692 miles, is the longest free flowing river in the lower 48 states. Here are some statistics for just the portion in Montana.

555 - River Miles in Montana
200 - River Miles of Blue Ribbon Trout Water
47 - Fishing Access Sites
12 - Wildlife Management Areas
2 - State Parks

This mighty river has the ability to produce some amazing peak flows. This year the river (near the mouth) peaked at close to 60,000 cfs. In 2004, after years of drought, that number was only 25,000 cfs. In 1978, in was ripping through at 111,000 cfs. The all-time recorded peak appears to be back in 1952 when it crested at 138,000 cfs. This type of flow could happen any year, since the river has no flood control reservoirs. Something to think about before building that expensive riverside home.

The river is home to almost all fish species native east of the continental divide. Of the species on my list, 22 or 66% occur in this waterway. With the hope of catching another native species on my list, I recently set out for a two-day trip on the river. The stretch I wanted to do had some sections of slower water, so I decided to take the canoe...although I knew there were some sections of fairly rough water. At this time of year, the river is at very low flows and I was hoping to capitalize on this to help me catch a couple of my target species. The first day, the wind was howling and our main focus was controlling the boat. We did stop and fish at some prime looking spots and managed a few trout and whitefish. That evening the wind died and the weather cleared into an amazing evening. I set out some lines hoping to catch the elusive burbot at night. Erica made a great fire of driftwood and we grilled up some venison burgers for dinner. I sat up late that night, drinking some beer and hoping for some nighttime action, but I caught nothing. The next morning as we paddled on, I landed a nice brown trout and some more whitefish...but no new species for my quest. The trip can only be called succesful though. We covered 25 miles of amazing country on this trip. The cottonwoods were turning into their golden fall colors, and the wildlife was abundant. The weather was warm and sunny as we took advantage of these last drops of summer.

Friday, September 24, 2010

The $25 Whitefish

During this last week, a couple of friends visited from back east. Pennsylvania to be precise. While fishing was not the intended purpose of their trip, they eagerly jumped at the idea to extend their trip and spend an afternoon floating down the Yellowstone. We decided on a short float, as we were unable to get on the water until the afternoon. So the stretch we picked was Carter's Bridge down to the 9th St. Bridge in Livingston, which is just about 4 river miles.

The weather turned out to be sunny and warm but the wind really picked up during the afternoon. This is a fairly common occurrence on this river...actually the wind on the Yellowstone is rather notorious. With the upstream wind slowing our drift, we lazily moved down the river casting our flies to the bank. At most of the nicer runs, we would pull over and work the water pretty well. Nick was the first to hook up on a trout, and landed a chunky rainbow that jumped at least 6 times during the fight. John was quick to catch a fish too, but he managed a native whitefish and lost another. Overall, the whitefish dominated our fishing and few trout ended up in the net.

The whole deal about a $25 whitefish is that John had to buy a 2-day fishing liscense, which cost him $25. This turned out to be the only fish he landed all day. The overall trip, however, was much more valuable. While John was standing in the river, he had a large black bear come down to the river literally right in front of him. The bear offered much more than just a fleeting glimpse as it worked downstream from us. On top of that, as we came around a brushy island we had a very close encounter with three of which was a bull. So often, you meet anglers who judge the value of their day on the water only by quantifying the number or size of fish caught. Just a day spent floating down an river, even without fishing, can be a welcome reprieve from daily life. Remember the old saying..."A bad day of fishing is better than a good day at work."

Monday, September 20, 2010

The High Country

The weather promised to heat up over the least that was what the local news station was advertising. Personally, I wasn't buying it. I had spent most of the day Friday standing waist deep in the Gallatin River and shivering while fishing to a great Baetis hatch. The sky was dark, the wind cold, and it was easy to imagine snowflakes drifting down at any time. By the time I was back home that evening, I had completely written off my weekend plans to backpack miles into the high country for some fishing and bird hunting. The late night news, however, still persisted with their optimistic report...there's no way I thought, and went to bed.

I didn't wake up early the next morning. I lazily strolled into the kitchen, and got my first view up at the mountains. The sky was bright blue, there was no fresh snow up high, and all of a sudden I felt stupid for not believing the local weatherman. Oh well, you can't blame a Montanan for being pessimistic about the weather...but now it was up to me to make up for lost time. As things stood, I wasn't in the best shape to hurry out the door. My gear was all neatly stowed away in scattered places throughout my home...this was going to take a little longer than I hoped. Backpack, check. Headlamp, check. Why didn't I do this last night? Tent, check. Sleeping bag, check. The list slowly grew and eventually my pack stood there ready to go.

Toby finally swings by, we load up, and speed off. Toby can always be counted on for any adventure...but he needs to get previous written permission from his wife. Thankfully, she supported this trip and even let him bring along the family dog Coco for some "bird training." The parking lot at the trailhead was eerily empty as we came grinding in...I guess nobody believed the weather guy. By now, we were down to shorts and t-shirts as we headed into the Spanish Peaks Wilderness. The first miles promised to be a relatively easy warm-up for the final climb up to timberline. We casually chatted, the hiking felt good, but in the back of our heads we knew that pain was soon to come. It soon appeared in the form of 2,000+ feet of vertical gain that we had to overcome before nightfall. A little ways up I had to remind myself..this is fun. By the time we set-up camp that night it took a good portion of our whiskey supply before that phrase was mentioned again.

I can never sleep late while camping, I am always wide awake at first light. Why can't it be that easy to wake-up at home? The morning sunrise washed all fatigue away from my legs...for Toby it took a big mug of Starbucks Via, but we were both anxious to get on the move. These high timberline meadows are the prime habitat for the blue grouse, and we were hoping to find a few before the end of our trip. Coco led the way as we began to spread out and look for birds. Wings flapped, guns fired, and we managed to get a total of four grouse between us. For Coco, bird hunting was a new experience and she learned a lot. We arrived at one meadow and spotted two nice grouse in the grass. Unfortunately, Coco did too and went charging pell-mell after them causing them to flush too far out. Thankfully, blue grouse never fly that far and we were still able to pick up one of those birds.

We arrived back at the trailhead after slogging back through 80 degree heat. Two days ago, the temperature barely reached 50 degrees. Compared to when we arrived, the parking lot was packed to overflowing with vehicles...the word had finally got around that the weather was nice. This trip served to illustrate how tough it can be to make advance plans for camping in Montana. The weather is fickle to say the least, and one has to flexible and ready on short notice. Probably the best method I have found, is to make a list of a variety of trips and to pick an appropriate one depending on the current conditions. I also made a resolution to have my backpack basically pre-packed in the closet, but as I write this I am looking at camping equipment strewn around the floor. I doubt it will all get put away in the same place.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Eastern Invaders

September is a great time of year, as we start to get our first frosts and snow in the mountains. For many, the defining event of the month is the annual elk rut and coinciding archery season. Many Montanans and others from all over are out prowling the mountains listening for the resonating sound of an elk bugle. There is, however, another smaller event happening in the fishing world at the same this is the time of year that brook trout choose to spawn and show of their brilliant colors.

Now, I have to admit that I am big fan of brook trout. The history of fly-fishing in America really revolves around this little fish, and I would be hard pressed to think of a more gorgeous fish. With that said, I can now say that I wish that they weren't in Montana. This fish has flourished in our cold, clear headwater streams and successfully out-competed the native cutthroats that were there originally. The brook trout can reproduce swiftly and in many streams they will over-populate and stunted growth results. The issue gets even more complicated in western Montana where brook trout overlap with populations of our native bull trout. These two fish are closely related and can readily hybridize producing sterile offspring. Bull Trout caught with vermiculations on their back are the classic example of this. Unfortunately, the brook trout has caused a serious headache in Montana and now the taxpayer must help fund the resulting eradication efforts. This was the case here locally when government agencies decided to poison these trout (and others) out of Cherry Creek. This creek flows mainly through Ted Turner's Flying D ranch, and so Ted was willing to foot a large portion of the bill. Without going into to much detail about the controversy, I would just like to applaud the effort to help restore native cutthroats...especially when private parties are involved financially. Brilliant. Projects like these are what will help to keep the Westslope Cutthroat off of the endangered species list, and keep federal wildlife management out of the state.

For the average angler, perhaps the best contribution we can make is to knock a few of these eastern invaders on the head. There are several great reasons:

1. Brook trout are very tasty
2. Brook trout are just the right size for the average frying pan
3. Getting the occasional meal helps out with the cost of a license
4. You are being conservation-minded
5. There is a liberal 20-fish limit on "brookies"

Your contribution may seem insignificant, but if it catches on we may have a real impact. The Teton River in Idaho/Wyoming is a great example of anglers seriously diminishing brook trout populations. I know that I will be prowling some mountain streams looking to put a few in the freezer for the winter. Hmmmm...Maybe I should trying smoking them this year.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Trip Report: Yellowstone River 9/12/2010

Cold, wet weather has been hanging around SW Montana for the last week, gently but firmly reminding us that winter weather is not all that far away. The cold weather finally broke this last weeked, changing to blues skies and warmer temperatures. With the rising barometer, I was fortunate enough to find myself invited along for a day of floating and fishing on the Yellowstone River. Sunday morning, Toby, Scott, and I all met up for the drive to Grey Owl FAS. Toby is a great friend and frequent fishing buddy, who is also a Native Fish representative. Scott Bohr is a seasoned angler, and a top-notch local guide that can be requested through shops like the River's Edge. Scott has fished and guided for many years on waters such as the South Fork of the Sanke, Henry's Fork, and the Yellowstone. His reputation precedes him and he has guided such notables as former VP Dick Cheney.

Today, however, was a casual fishing adventure. We began floating fairly early in the day, and not surprisingly most of the first fish we caught were on nymphs. As the day progressed and warmed up, we began to see fish rising to a swarming hatch of tricos. After this, we promptly switched to the dry fly and stuck with it for the remainder of the float. The fishing really picked up in the afternoon, with fish constantly hitting a well-presented fly. If our hook-sets had been as good as our casting, we would have boated a lot more fish. As it was, we still managed a good number of fish...mostly rainbows and cutthroats. I was happy to see such large, healthy cutthroats in the river. I enjoyed watching the slow and deliberate rise of these fish from the boat. The browns never made much of an appearance, and I can only remember bringing one to the boat. The whitefish, of course, were around and willing to hit a nymph or dry. As we got close to our take-out, Toby hooked and landed the big fish of the day...a gorgeous 17" rainbow with plenty of heft and color. It turned out to be a great note to end on.

The day was a great float, and maybe a final summer send-off as we now begin our transition to autumn. It is hard to imagine finding better company than Scott and Toby to spend all day in a boat with. I'm sure that our constant laughter was heard echoing all along the Yellowstone River, from Grey Owl to Mallards.